The Medieval Review 11.04.15

Cooper-Rompato, Christine F. The Gift of Tongues: Women's Xenoglossia in the Later Middle Ages. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010. Pp. x, 232. $75 ISBN 978-0-271-03616-8. .

Reviewed by:

Laura Jose
Durham University

Christine Cooper-Rompato's examination of female xenoglossia argues that the gift of tongues is a "vital part of later medieval religious culture" (2). From the twelfth to fifteenth century, instances of xenoglossia form a repeated theme in saints' lives and canonization procedures. Cooper-Rompato links this both to the late medieval focus on the apostolic model--itself linked to the prominence of the mendicants and a new importance placed on preaching and missionary work--and a new concern for issues of translation and correct speech. As she points out, in a society in which there is a deep concern with the process and consequences of biblical translation, xenoglossia seems to offer a solution, holding out "the promise of complete equivalence between languages and a desire for "pure translation" that does not mutate, manipulate, or alter the text in any way" (15).

Cooper-Rompato argues that such instances of translation, however, are clearly gendered. Men receive gifts of tongues in order to carry out large-scale preaching and conversion, and often for long periods of time--indeed, sometimes lifetimes. Women's gifts, however, are less ambitious: Cooper-Rompato points out that women receive gifts of translation which are limited in both scope and duration. While men's xenoglossia contributes to their reputation as preachers and teachers, "the female version of this miracle is almost always semiprivate, and it often emphasizes vulnerability and a certain lack of control or limited control over the language" (40). The female saints who Cooper- Rompato cites receive brief gifts of xenoglossia in order to help themselves or others at particular moments: Clare of Montefalco receives the ability to speak French in order to speak to a female pilgrim visiting her nunnery; Colette of Corbie, when she and fellow pilgrims are confronted by a group of armed men, is able to miraculously speak their language in order to transform their evil intent into "amour et charite" (42).

While the first chapter covers instances of vernacular translation, the second concentrates on miraculous Latinity, detailing those female saints who are given the sudden ability to read Latin. In allowing women to trespass on the male terrain of Latin learning and scriptural interpretation, miraculous Latinity both endorses and undermines female authority. Although a sudden ability to read Latin allows female saints to participate in a male culture of textual criticism, their abilities are again limited in scope, and are clearly differentiated from the rigorous textual scholarship of male clerics. Catherine of Siena, for example, is only given her gift of miraculous Latinity after weeks of unsuccessful attempts to learn by normal means.

The spectacle of a woman speaking Latin fluently is open to being demonised, quite literally. As Cooper-Rompato notes, female Latinity is often taken as a sign of demonic possession, as well as possibly Lollardy. Accounts of women who receive this gift, then, are keen to stress their readiness to subject themselves to male authority, in the shape of their confessors and priests, and their vitae are themselves shaped by their male authors. The third chapter, looking at the Book of Margery Kempe, negotiates this terrain between female authority and male textual control. Indeed, the Book itself is only made possible through an act of miraculous understanding: after the death of Margery's first scribe, the priest to whom Margery turns to continue the transcription is first unable to read his predecessor's script. After much praying by himself and Margery, however, he finds the writing much easier to read, and also notices a great improvement in eyesight. Cooper-Rompato argues that xenoglossia is a vital part of Margery's attempts to model her own narrative on those of the female saints. Margery's travels through Europe and Jerusalem provide plenty of opportunities to engage in miraculous translation. As a pilgrim in Rome, she is able to speak with and understand a priest who speaks only German after thirteen days of prayer, enabling her to seek spiritual guidance and giving her access to confession and proving, as Cooper-Rompato remarks, both her holiness and her voluntary subjection to the authority of the Church.

As well as being used to demonstrate sanctity, xenoglossia becomes used as a tool to enquire into the nature of translation itself. In her final chapter, Cooper-Rompato examines Chaucer's use of female xenoglossia in the Canterbury Tales. She focuses on three texts, each containing a notable instance of female translation: the Prioress's Prologue and Tale, the Man of Law's Tale and the Squire's Tale. As Cooper-Rompato points out, the central miracle of the Prioress's Tale is not one of miraculous translation, but is still centred on speech: the ability of a corpse to speak after death, and despite its throat being cut. However, the tale is framed by the Prioress' own desire for a speech miracle: in this case, the desire for a gift of infant tongues. This desire to be emptied of all knowledge contrasts strangely with the child martyr's own desire for learning: he painstakingly learns the Alma redemptoris in order to better praise Mary, and is rewarded by a post-mortem miracle. Cooper-Rompato argues that Chaucer is here experimenting with degrees of "linguistic agency": while the Prioress denies all control over her speech, figuring herself as merely a conduit for the word of God, the subject of her tale consciously directs his own speech in worship. (159)

Again, this is gendered: while men engage with texts and authorities, women are envisioned as keeping to a simple, unthinking piety. Cooper- Rompato argues that "in all three tales, Chaucer envisions the translator who translates 'perfectly' or miraculously to be a woman, in large part because he imagines it is her particularly passive or gentil nature that makes her especially receptive to another's words" (145). In her examination of the Man of Law's Tale, Cooper-Rompato sees Custance, the tale's central figure, as another practitioner of perfect translation. Custance is able to speak directly to the inhabitants of Northumbria despite her ignorance of their language; a miraculous ability shared and, indeed, bettered by the heroine of the Squire's Tale who is able to converse on equal terms with a bird. As Cooper-Rompato points out, "Chaucer is critiquing (and poking fun at) the assumptions that lie behind claims of 'word for word and sense for sense' translation, a fantasy of equivalence that imagines that a bird and a woman can perfectly understand one another and share exactly the same realms of experience" (174). Whilst this sort of perfect translation may be an accepted trope in saints' lives, Chaucer demonstrates its unsustainability when transferred across genres.

At the conclusion of this chapter, Cooper-Rompato briefly raises the question of the Wife of Bath and Prudence of the Melibee--both of whom are notable translators and interpreters of texts, and both of whom participate enthusiastically, if not always accurately, in male textual practices. Cooper-Rompato comments that Chaucer "seems to be suggesting that women, depending on their motives, make either the very best or the very worst of translators" (188). This is an interesting argument, and one which deserves a fuller treatment. Indeed, the book would generally benefit from a broader focus: it would be particularly interesting to compare treatments of xenoglossia in other works concerned with female translation. The focus on Chaucer seems at times unnecessarily narrow, and Cooper-Rompato's thesis that xenoglossia is an overlooked part of medieval culture would be better substantiated by looking at a greater range of texts. In general, however, this is a valuable and informative look at an understudied area of medieval religious culture and its gender implications, and one which can certainly be recommended to scholars in this field.